‘Subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that.’ Fred, the expat PR in Whit Stillman’s comedy Barcelona (1994), living in the early years of post-Franco Spain, can clock hidden meanings but not surface truths. His friend enlightens him. What’s above the subtext? ‘It’s the text, Fred.’
It’s largely an inheritance of literary theory from the 1980s and ’90s that we speak of ‘subtexts’ at all. Poststructuralism, which flowered on US campuses during this era, did to ‘grand narratives’ (truth, justice, freedom, the Enlightenment) what US President William Howard Taft did to unions: busted them. In a nutshell, deconstructionists liked to examine works of art rhetorically, showing how hidden meanings and surface truths exist in tension with one another. What I say, in other words, is not always what I am saying.
Semiology, the study of signs, was a topic du jour in the late 1980s, when Peter Thiel, then a philosophy student at Stanford University, walked into a literature seminar. The professor, a maddeningly contrarian émigré named René Girard, was an autodidact and lifelong Catholic apologist who had, in his youth, visited Pablo Picasso in his studio and once reportedly punctured a hole in a Henri Matisse painting during a botched curatorial gig. In 1966, at the start of his long academic career, Girard invited Jacques Derrida to speak at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore – a talk widely seen as the birth of deconstruction in the US.
Girard’s own writing linked the human impulses to desire and to imitate. Why do we like the things we do? Our responses are not only intrinsic: we click ‘like’ on our social-media feeds because other people have also done so. Desire is fundamentally imitative. As Hermia says in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595–96), we ‘choose love by another’s eyes’. When two people desire the same thing, they engage in ‘mimetic rivalry’ and they fight. Girard’s account of society is one of individuals warring with one another for resources they desire, imitatively, but cannot share. Peace is reached only after a mob declares a loser, who is scapegoated (in Girardian terms, ‘lynched’). Communities are inherently conflictual.
‘I suspect that when the history of the 20th century is written, in 2100, Girard will be seen as one of the great intellectuals,’ said Thiel in an interview he gave in September with the Hoover Institution, a public policy think-tank based at Stanford. A few years after graduating from university, Thiel co-authored a screed against diversity and multi-culturalism on campus, titled The Diversity Myth (1995). Today, some 25 years later and two billion dollars richer, he is better-known as the co-founder of PayPal, the backer of Facebook and founder of, among others, Palantir, which provides surveillance software to the US government. He consistently cites Girard in lectures, presentations and his own writings.
The Thiel-Girard brotherhood emblematizes the ways in which postmodern theories became ossified, as infrastructures of knowledge, and the way in which many were usurped by the political right. Thiel today is the brains behind another organization – with a name straight from a Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel – Imitatio. The sole aim of Imitatio is to support research and publishing about mimetic theory and Girard. It’s chilling to think that Girard’s most famous disciple – and, arguably, one of the most powerful people in the world – is shaping our reality guided by theories of radical division, scapegoating and violence. Connect the dots.
This autumn, Thiel is back at Stanford, co-teaching a course in the university’s German department. Students in ‘Sovereignty and the Limits of Globalization and Technology’ are reading Girard alongside the influential Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, the 2006 Regensburg lecture by Pope Benedict XVI and a book by William Rees-Mogg. Father of Jacob (current UK Leader of the House of Commons), former editor of The Times newspaper and a lifelong Eurosceptic, Rees-Mogg is known for the bestselling The Sovereign Individual (with James Dale Davidson, 1997) – a book whose original, opportunistic, subtitle is: ‘How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State.’
An investment guide for the end-times, the purpose of this book is to teach readers how to make money from the collapse of the world as we know it. This collapse, for Rees-Mogg, is imminent when we transition from an industrial to an information society. ‘Violence will become more random and localized,’ Rees-Mogg argues. ‘Incomes will become more unequal within jurisdictions and more equal between them.’ Smells like opportunity, to some.
Like the climate, many of our institutions – cultural, political, commercial – are quaking under various pressures. Looking to infrastructure, the focus of this issue of frieze, means addressing the changes affecting the deepest reaches of what we take for granted: environment, society, cultural establishments, communication networks, the media. To comprehend what the ramifications will be for the arts, we need to look beyond the usual places: to artists working on the Mexico-US border, to those mapping our changing landscape, or to the emergence of a ‘new sublime’, which architect Rem Koolhaas identifies in the world’s rural areas. We must also recognize that Thiel, Girard and Rees-Mogg are instances of what the urbanist Keller Easterling, writing in these pages, terms a ‘superbug’: a structure that seeds misinformation and plays on ambiguity and conflict, rousing division and inciting forms of resistance that too often come up short. The writing’s on the wall: we need a new activism. For that, though, we must look well beyond the subtext.
First published in Issue 207